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Disqualifications for Birkas Kohanim

This week’s Parashah, in which we learn of the mitzvah of Kohanim to bless the nation, inspires us to investigate a particular facet of the mitzvah: the possible disqualification of Kohanim from participation in the blessing. Since its inception, a number of questions on the site have addressed issues of potential disqualification from the blessing.

In this week’s article, we will discuss this matter at length: Are there blemishes, physical or spiritual, that render a Kohein disqualified from giving the Priestly Blessing? What are the principles underlying this issue, and in which ways is the ‘service’ of blessing the people similar to the service of Kohanim in the Temple?

Inside and Outside the Mikdash

It is noteworthy that the original and perhaps primary location of birkas kohanim seems to have been in the holy precincts, first of the Mishkan, and later of the Mikdash. The Torah thus relates that upon completing the sacrificial service of the eighth day of the Mishkan’s dedication, Aharon blessed the people: “And Aharon raised up his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin-offering and the burnt-offering and the peace-offerings” (Vayikra 9:22).

In keeping with this assertion, the Rambam lists birkat kohanim among the positive mitzvos associated with the Mikdash and its service (Mitzvas Aseh 26).  Moreover, the Mishnah (Tamid 7:2) describes how the Kohanim would bless the people after burning the limbs of the Tamid offering.

Therefore, although birkas kohanim is recited (as we know) outside the Temple, it is not surprising to find a number of distinctions between birkas kohanim in the Mikdash, and the blessing recited outside (see Mishnah, Tamid 7:3; Gemara, Sotah 38a). Even outside the Mikdash, birkas kohanim is appropriately recited after the blessing of retzei, in which we pray for the restoration of the Temple service.

Yet, despite the clear connection between birkas kohanim and the Mikdash, the Rishonim agree that even outside the Temple, and even after its destruction, birkas kohanim remains a Torah mitzvah (Rambam, Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, Aseh 26; Ramban, Bamidbar 8:2;  Chinuch 378).

This assertion emerges from a teaching of the Yerushalmi (Nazir 7:1), and raises the following question: To what degree is the blessing of Kohanim outside the Mikdash related to the Temple service within the Mikdash?

The Prayer-Service Duality

The Gemara (Sotah 38a) explains that birkas kohanim must be recited standing. This law, according to the conclusion of the Gemara, is derived from the general instruction to Kohanim whereby they are commanded “to stand to serve.” Like other parts of the Temple service, even birkas kohanim must be performed standing. This teaching indicates that the laws of birkas kohanim can be derived from the Temple service.

Yet, in discussing the prohibition of one who is intoxicated to perform birkas kohanim, the Gemara (Taanis 26b-27a) explains that the law cannot be derived from the laws of the Temple service: “If so, just as one who serves may not have a blemish, so too a Kohein who blesses [may not have a blemish].” The Gemara assumes (based on a law of the Nazir) that even a blemished Kohein may bless the nation, and therefore rejects the comparison (on a Torah level) between the Temple service and birkas kohanim.

A similar dichotomy is found in halachic rulings. On the one hand, the Rambam (Tefillah 15:3-4) disqualifies a Kohein who is guilty of idolatry or murder, as well as a Kohein who has consumed a revi’is of wine. Both disqualifications are based on comparisons to the Temple service.  On the other hand, Tosafos (Taanis 27a) rule that a blemished or apostate Kohein may bless the nation, rejecting the comparison between birkat kohanim and general Temple service.

This appears to present something of a contradiction. Is birkas hakohanim comparable to the Temple service, or is it not? Indeed, although as noted above, the Rambam (in Sefer Ha-Mitzvos) records the mitzvah of birkas kohanim as a mitzvah related to the Mikdash, in Mishnah Torah the laws of birkas kohanim are included in the laws of prayer, forming the combined Hilchos Tefillah U-Nesias Kapayim. How are both associations true?

Inner and Superficial Properties

It would appear that although birkas kohanim is a part of the prayer service, it is derived from and therefore inherently related to the Temple service.

Because of this duality, we can suggest that although the inner properties of Kohanim need not match those required for the Temple service, the Kohen’s superficial appearance and actions must match the conditions of the Temple service.[1]

A blemished Kohein is therefore not disqualified, and the Magen Avraham (128:54) likewise rules that a Kohein who is an arel (uncircumcised) may participate in the blessing. However, like the Temple service, birkas hakohanim must be recited standing, and there is room to disqualify—at least on a rabbinic level—a Kohein who is inebriated.[2]

An important ramification of this understanding is the law of birkas kohanim at night. The time of day when the blessing is recited certainly has bearing on the superficial form of the blessing, and it therefore stands to reason that the blessing cannot be recited at night. This, indeed, is the opinion of Hagahos Maimoniyos (Tefillah 3, Letter Hei), citing from Mordechai, who explains that birkas kohanim is compared to the Temple service.

Yet, although several opinions concur with this ruling (see Shulchan Aruch Harav 623:8, who rules that the blessing can be recited until nightfall; see also Shaar Ha-Tzion 623:11), the Maharil (cited by Darkei Moshe) permits the recitation of birkas kohanim even after nightfall. Yet, although the Magen Avraham (623:3) mentions both opinions, the widespread custom is to refrain from birkas kohanim at night.

Physical Blemishes: Don’t Look!

Although the Gemara rules out a comparison with the Temple service with regard to blemishes, the Mishnah (Megillah 4:7) teaches that certain blemishes do disqualify the Kohein from participation in the blessing: “A priest whose hands have blemishes may not raise his hands. Rabbi Yehuda says, ‘Moreover, one whose hands are stained with astim or pu’ah (a blue dye or red dye) may not raise his hands, because the people will gaze at him.” This halachah is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 128:30), who adds that conspicuous facial blemishes also disqualify the Kohen.

Unlike the popular misconception, there is no concern that gazing at the Kohanim (nowadays) will cause a person to become blind. This concern is reserved for the blessing of Kohanim in the Temple (Chagigah 15a), where the Shechinah rested on the Kohanim’s hands.

Yet, although it involves no danger, the Rambam (Tefilla 14:7) explains that just as the kohanim should not gaze at the people, to ensure that they do not become distracted, so the congregation should not gaze at the kohanim and become distracted. The Mishnah Berurah (128:89) adds that the principle prohibition is to gaze or stare at the Kohanim, which can cause distraction, and not merely to see or glance at them, but adds that there might be a custom, in recollection of the Mikdash, to avoid even a glance. A Kohein with superficial blemishes is likely to attract attention, and he is therefore disqualified from blessing the people.

Today, due to the custom that Kohanim cover their hands and faces with a tallis, these disqualifications no longer apply (Shulchan Aruch 128:31). Moreover, it would seem that even the custom mentioned by the Mishnah Berurah of not looking at Kohanim cannot apply today, for there is nothing to see but talleisim.

Blemishes of the Spirit

The Rambam (Tefillah 15:6-7), followed by the Shulchan Aruch (128:39), rules that as a general rule, sins do not disqualify a Kohein from participating in the blessing. He explains further: “The blessing is not dependent upon the Kohanim, but rather on Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu…  Kohanim should perform their mitzvah as they are instructed, and Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, in His mercy, will willingly bless Israel.”

Although the Magen Avraham (128:56) explains (citing from Raanach) that this refers to Kohanim that have repented their sins, this is not the simple explanation of the ruling, which does not mention the Kohein’s repentance. Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah (128:146) rules against the Magen Avraham on this issue, and the Vilna Gaon likewise writes that the opinion of the Shluchan Aruch does not concur with the Magen Avraham.

However, there are a number of sins that do disqualify a Kohein from blessing the nation. Specifically, the Rambam (Tefillah 15:3) mentions three sins: murder, idolatry, and conversion to another (idolatrous) religion.[3]

Can a Murderer Bless?

Regarding a Kohein who has murdered, the Gemara (Berachos 32b) teaches that the hands of a Kohein who has murdered may not be vehicles of a Divine blessing: “Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘A Kohein who has killed someone may not raise his hands, since it says (Yeshayahu 1:15), ‘[When you spread your hands, I will ignore you…] your hands have been filled with blood.'”  This halachah is applied by the Peri Megadim (128 Eishel Avraham 51) even to killing a non-Jew, though Maamar Mordechai (128:43) derives from the Perishah that it does not apply to a non-Jew.

According to the Rambam, this restriction applies even after the Kohein has repented: the stain of murder can never be cleansed from the Kohein’s hands. Yet, other Rishonim (Hagahos Maimoniyos 15:1, citing from the Raavya and Rabbeinu Simcha) limit the restriction to a murderer who is “known and inclined to kill”—and not to a murderer who has repented.

The Shulchan Aruch (128:35) rules in favor of the Rambam. Although the Rema adds that the custom is to be lenient for those who have repented (in order not to “close the door” on the penitent), a number of authorities (see Biur Halachah, s.vAfilu asa, citing from Peri Chadash and Eliyah Rabbah) insist that one should not rule leniently regarding a Kohein who murdered with intent, even after he has repented. The Mishnah Berurah is inconclusive on how to rule on this question. However, in cases where the victim did not die instantly, but only after a number of days, the Chayei Adam (32:5) rules that one may rely on the ruling of the Rema (see Maharsham 5:30 for an application of this ruling to somebody who killed with intent and later repented).

The Mishnah Berurah (128:128-9) adds that one who has been “forced” to kill, as well as one who causes a woman to miscarry (which is not considered as full murder), may recite birkat kohanim.

Car Accidents and Warfare

Contemporary authorities discuss a number of cases that can unfortunately be of practical consequence. For example, may a Kohein one who has caused a fatal car crash participate in the blessing? Based on the ruling of Rema, there is clearly room for leniency concerning somebody who has repented; as the Mishnah Berurah implies, authorities are only stringent with regard to somebody who killed intentionally, and not concerning somebody who killed inadvertently. This ruling is given by Rav Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Halevi 1, Orach Chaim 43), although his specific case includes other mitigating factors.

For Sephardim (who often don’t follow the glosses of the Rema), Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechavveh Daas 5:16) rules that a Kohein should refrain from reciting the blessing if he has caused a fatal car crash. Yet, he adds that if he was driving carefully, and somebody jumped out in front of the car, he would not be disqualified. He also rules that if the accident only caused injury, the Kohein is not disqualified, even if the victim ultimately died of his wounds—provided of course that the Kohein regretted and repented his deed.

The Shulchan Aruch (128:36) rules that a Kohein who performs a circumcision on a child who passes away as a result is not disqualified, because he “intended to fulfill a mitzvah.” This ruling might also apply to a doctor whose patient passes away under his care, or on the operating table—he, too, probably (or possibly) intended to fulfill a mitzvah (see Biur Halachah 38, s.v. heim, concerning whether selling tefillin is considered a mitzvah or not; the same principle might be applicable to a doctor).

Regarding a soldier, a number of authorities explain that a Kohein should be considered as if he was “forced” to kill, and he continues to participate in birkas kohanim (see Shut Tiferes Tzvi 36, who explains that after a soldier is forced to go to the army, he is permitted to kill the enemy, who wishes to kill him; see also Hitorerus Teshuvah 4:11). Certainly a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, fighting the state’s enemies, continues to participate in the blessing, for his warfare in defense of the Jewish people is a great mitzvah.

Shabbos Desecrators

Some authorities (see Peri Chadash 128) suggest that since an idol-worshiper is disqualified from the blessing, there is also room to disqualify a Kohein who publicly desecrates the Shabbos. This is based on the Gemara (Chullin 5a), which describes one who publicly violates Shabbos as an akkum (an acronym for “worshipper of stars and constellations”).

The Shulchan Aruch Harav (128:52), the Peri Megadim (52), and the Mishna Berura (134) thus rule that a public Shabbos violator should not participate in the blessing.

However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 1:33) argues that the comparison between violation of Shabbos and idolatry is certainly not absolute. He derives this assumption from the fact that repentance surely permits a Kohein who once desecrated Shabbos to participate in the blessing—setting him aside from an idolater. After trying to shy away from replying to the delicate question, Rav Moshe rules that the Shabbos violation of Jews of his time does not demonstrate kefirah, as public violation of Shabbos did in the past. Therefore, although it is preferable that he should not participate in the blessing, if such as Kohein was requested to duchan, he should not be prevented from doing so.

Aside from issues relating to behavior, a  chalal loses his status of Kehunah for all halachic purposes, and therefore may not participate in the blessing (Shulchan Aruch 128:40; Mishnah Berurah 147).  The disqualification of a chalal applies to one who is married to a woman forbidden to Kohanim, such as a divorcee, as well as the child of such a union.  A woman born from such a union is a chalalah, and it is forbidden for her to marry a Kohen; if she does, her children retain the chalal status.

In Summary:

  • The laws of birkas kohanim demonstrate a dual nature. On the one hand, some laws (such as reciting the blessing standing and the disqualifications of a drunk Kohein) are derived from the laws of the Temple service. On the other hand, unlike the Temple service, a blemished Kohein may participate in the blessing.
  • Authorities debate whether or not birkas kohanim is compared to the Temple service with regard to giving the blessing at night. The common custom is to refrain from birkas kohanim at night.
  • Although a blemished Kohein is not disqualified from participation, blemishes on the face and the hands disqualified a Kohein in the past, for fear that this will cause the people to look at him. Today, the Kohanim cover their hands and heads, and these disqualifications no longer apply.
  • A Kohein who murders, serves idolatry, or converts to another religion, is disqualified from giving the blessing. If he has repented, some authorities permit him to participate in the blessing. The disqualification does not apply to somebody who was forced to kill.
  • Authorities write that one who publicly desecrates Shabbos is disqualified. However, under certain circumstances a rabbi should not prevent somebody who desecrates Shabbos from participating in the blessing.

[1] See also Taz, who writes a somewhat different distinction between congenital blemishes and blemishes that depend on the Kohen’s behavior. See also Peri Megadim (Orach Chaim 128), who defends the position of the Taz.

[2] It is possible that the essential disqualification of a Kohein who has drunk wine pertains to an “inner blemish,” and therefore cannot be derived from the Temple service. However, in addition to the “inner blemish,” there is also a superficial blemish of being drunk—at least on a rabbinic level—as ruled by the Rambam.

[3] The Mishnah Berurah (128:134) adds that even one who converted to Islam is disqualified. The question of somebody who converted and then repented is the subject of a dispute among Rishonim, and the Rema rules that the custom is to be lenient.

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